So I’ve shown Katy two post-9/11 movies with downer endings in a row, and now I realize that I was about to show her a third. Unintentional, but can’t be a coincidence. Current theory is that 9/11 hit in the middle of my exploding cinephilia and I was angry that nobody wanted to talk about it in film, so the few films that dared to discuss it stuck in my mind… and it’s been about five years since I’ve seen ’em, the perfect amount of time to watch them again? Does that make sense?
Malkovich is still deliciously distracting as the captain. I’d forgotten how BUNUELIAN the whole thing seems. From one ancient landmark to another, having slightly unreal meetings and conversations with people along the way, then a huge narrative jump and we’re at dinner with the captain and his famous friends, then another dinner conversation, this time with the mother and child, Malkovich standing the whole time, a song in Greek, then terrorist attack!
A very unusual movie. I kinda love it, but never quite knew what to make of it. I remember this M. Dargis piece:
As the two stop at ports from France to Turkey, the film takes the shape of a genial history lesson, one that grows progressively darker when you realize the message Mr. Oliveira has been delivering alongside all the seemingly benign tourist shots. The film begins, rather prophetically, with the image of people waving goodbye. … As they stand in the shadow of the Acropolis, Maria Joana wonders, “What did people do here?” Her mother replies, “They worshipped their gods.” In a sense, who those gods were and what they meant is at the center of “A Talking Picture,” which takes the measure of Western civilization for good and for ill. Although the mother-and-daughter exchanges purposely recall the discourses that once echoed throughout the Acropolis, their sightseeing also has the flavor of everyday life. … The metaphor of privileged tourists blithely afloat on a luxury ship – and embarked on a circle tour of that crime scene known as Europe and its colonial-era environs, no less – is at once blunt and brilliant. In both its intellectual reach and the elegant simplicity of its form, “A Talking Picture” bears resemblance to Andrei Sokurov’s “Russian Ark.” … this is the only film I can think of that, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, has so directly addressed the war on liberal democracies. Maybe it takes an angry old man who can cede the sins of the West without also sacrificing its ideals.
On one hand it’s a young girl’s education on the world and its ways; on the other it’s a meditation by three godlike women (godlike for their high status in the film and higher status in world cinema), representing at least two of the most prominent cultures in Europe, holding forth on their views of love, life, and human history.
France and Italy are, if not the most prominent, easily the most graceful of European powers (odd–or maybe not–that Germany, Britain, and Spain are not mentioned); both countries owe much of what they are to Greece, a fact Helena points out, lamenting at the same time the subsequent loss of status of her country (French, Italian and especially English are spoken everywhere; Greek is spoken mostly in Greece, and at most as borrowed words in other languages). America, the single biggest Western power in the 20th and 21st centuries, is represented by a fawning buffoon of a captain (played with selfless enthusiasm by Malkovich)–who is, it must be noted, Polish (all Americans except the natives are, of course, immigrants). Portugal as represented by mother and child is invited to the table, but the invitation is politely refused (the mother capitulates on the second offer, which included a gift of a lovely little Muslim doll to the child). France, Italy, Greece together at a table with the party hosted by America, and Portugal a reluctant but desired guest.
What’s missing from the table and from much of the picture, of course, is the true (truer, anyway) cradle of humanity, basis of much of even Greek civilization, the Middle East. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt among others are not represented, and while Egypt’s monuments are shown and discussed, they’re discussed not by an Egyptian but by a Portugese. The silence is overwhelming; we hear secondhand about Muslim civilizations, usually as it relates to and clashes with Western civilizations (the Hagia Sophia, Napoleon visiting the pyramids, the Arabs burning the library at Alexandria (a historically disputed event)). Suddenly the Middle East speaks out (or at least we assume it’s from the Mid-East–Oliveira leaves even this ambiguous), in the form of a ship’s officer with an urgent message, and the entire ship is forced to react to a neglected culture’s startling response.
In an article by Z. Campbell, he says the film “is often if not exclusively interpreted as a conservative lament,” but he praises Oliveira’s other works and says “This is an artist concerned with, among other things, the representation of unrepresentable experiences the source of which exists in some unspoken spaces of social structure (hospitality, companionship, family ties, tradition).”
The mother, Leonor Silveira, has appeared in just about every Oliveira film I’ve heard of. Captain Malkovich will be in the next movies by the Coens and Clint Eastwood and also a thriller about vampire mutants. French entrepreneur Catherine Deneuve was in a few Raoul Ruiz movies I’ve gotta see. Greek singer/actress Irene Papas starred in Costa-Gavras’ Z and previously The Guns of Navarone. Italian model Stefania Sandrelli was in a bunch of Bertolucci movies including a starring role in The Conformist.
The box art takes the one looking-into-camera close-up of Leonor Silveira and nests it inside the one shot where she is dwarfed by the monuments she visits. A nice idea, but then of course it’s cluttered up with titles and floating heads of the other stars.